Now that the 2018-19 regular season is coming to a close, the Air Alamo staff converged to discuss the San Antonio Spurs and their playoff chances.
In a season that saw many projecting the demise of the San Antonio Spurs, the restructuring team held tight and doubled down on last season’s performance. The shifting tides of the Western Conference left this team without a clear direction with a pair of leading players that rejected the trends of the league.
The Spurs have officially matched their win total from the 2017-18 season at 47 with an opportunity to move up with a win against Dallas; Playoff standings are cloudy at this point with seeding coming down to the very last games of the year.
Playoffs are the best part of the year in San Antonio. After a heartbreaking defeat in the first-round last season, the Spurs are poised to battle for another chance at a sixth title. In all reality, this team has some work to do before reaching that point but the mentality of the team remains unchanged – championship or bust.
With that in mind, the Air Alamo staff answered a few pressing questions about the San Antonio Spurs ahead of the 2019 Postseason.
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1. What is the ceiling for this year’s Spurs squad in the playoffs?
Kendall Garriss: Given this week’s loss to the Denver Nuggets, if the standings hold true for the rest of the year then I think the ceiling for this Spurs squad would just be a playoff berth. The prospect of a 1-8 matchup against the Golden State Warriors would most likely result in a gentleman’s sweep.
However, if the Spurs are able to win their next remaining games and they receive a bit of help from OKC dropping a contest or two over the final stretch then San Antonio has the chance to make some noise. Best case scenario: The Spurs acquire a 7th seed, win their first-round matchup, but most likely lose in the second round.
Taking into consideration the adversity, lack of expectations and the slew of injuries that plagued this team over the course of the season, that would be a pretty solid way to finish off this rocky season.
Ethan Farina: The San Antonio Spurs have a very slim chance of coming out of the playoffs with another NBA title but it’s not impossible. This isn’t March Madness where a team can get inexplicably hot and go on a Cinderella run. In the NBA, the best team is usually the one hoisting the trophy when all is said and done. But it’s not impossible.
Slowing the pace of the game down to a crawl, relying on DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge to make buckets, and an otherworldly defensive performance by Derrick White would certainly give San Antonio a fighting chance. That being said, I think that this team is capable of at least making it to the second round.
Melanie James: This year’s Spurs have a ceiling of getting to the second round of the playoffs winning at least 2 games. Although their defense is inconsistent, their offense can lack in offensive rebounds and turnovers, they facilitate the ball for plays that can help keep them in the game. They don’t have a full veteran squad so it’s a mixture of experience, talent and skills to help them turn up the heat.
Andrew Ites: I think the ceiling for this team would be a run to the Conference Finals. If the Spurs draw Denver in the first round, I think they have a pretty good chance to pull off an upset. Houston would be waiting in the second round if that upset does indeed happen, and we’ve seen Gregg Popovich devise good gameplans against the Rockets many times. A run to the Conference Finals is obviously unlikely, but the Spurs could win two playoff rounds if everything goes their way.
Matias Weilmann: I think this team caps out in the second round. The Spurs deserve all the credit in the world for what they’ve done this season but they simply lack the talent to beat the Warriors or the Rockets. They’ve struggled defensively throughout the season; their defensive rating currently ranks in the bottom half of the league and only the Clippers, who traded away their best player midseason and somehow still made the playoffs, have a worse defensive rating amongst Western Conference playoff teams.
The Spurs will have to be on the road in the postseason, where they’ve struggled all season. Combine that with a 12-13 record against Western Conference playoff teams, and you’ve got a team that probably won’t make it past round 2, if even that far.
Alex Goodwin: By and large the Spurs playoff ceiling will depend on seeding. If they can stay out of the dreaded eight seed which would guarantee a matchup with the buzzsaw that is the Golden State Warriors, the Silver and Black can at best make it to the second round. However, that’s the farthest I see San Antonio going this season.
This Spurs team has overachieved in a season when many thought the Spurs wouldn’t make the playoffs for the first time in my lifetime, but the Spurs inability to consistently pick up victories on the road will ultimately be their undoing. Asking this team with a .375 road winning percentage to win a potential game seven in a hostile road environment is biting off a bit more than you can chew.
Dylan Hunter Carter: If everything goes exactly as planned, I could see this team reaching the Western Conference Finals. In all honesty, even that is unrealistic because of the Spurs’ rocky defense and unpredictable scoring patterns. This team has so much potential that they made not have fully realized, although the playoff atmosphere could bring something our in these players.
I have a rule: Never count Gregg Popovich out and it’s never led me astray.
Next: Who is your ideal first-round playoff opponent and why?
2. Who is your ideal first-round playoff opponent and why?
Kendall: It’s got to be the Denver Nuggets; a date with the Warriors would be the fastest way to an early postseason exit. While the Nuggets have been a great surprise to many this year, they still present a favorable matchup for the Spurs due to their lack of playoff experience. Only Paul Millsap and Isaiah Thomas, who is no longer in the active rotation, are the only current Denver players who have played in the postseason. Juxtapose that with the San Antonio Spurs, who recently clinched their 22nd consecutive playoff berth and you’ll understand why experience will play such a crucial role.
As such, one can expect at least a game or two where the players from Denver’s young core like Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Malik Beasley have an off night simply because they’re just not used to the situation nor the magnitude of the moment. This would be pivotal to watch for in Games 1 and 2, which would be played in Denver.
The Spurs have been atrocious away from the AT&T Center (Home Record: 31-9, Away Record: 14-25). If they could steal one of those road games and take care of business at home the Spurs could potentially win this series in six or seven games.
Ethan: The ideal first-round matchup for the Spurs is anyone outside of the Golden State Warriors. If San Antonio can secure the sixth or seventh seed their chances of moving out of the first round increase dramatically.
Denver has vulnerabilities. Nikola Jokic is a pass-first player, playing into that and forcing Denver’s guards to carry the scoring load while being hounded by Derrick White would be the ideal matchup. However, we’ve seen James Harden and the Houston Rockets slowed down by the defensive strategy employed by the Milwaukee Bucks.
By only playing his left hand and forcing Harden to drive right, the Bucks were able to throw him off his game and harass him into a 9-for-26 shooting night.
He still played like the MVP he is, but it was clear that the strategy took him away from what he’s most comfortable doing. San Antonio could use a similar wrinkle if they were to face off with the Rockets in the first round.
Melanie: My ideal first-round opponent is the Denver Nuggets. Even though we loss to them this week, and they lack playoff experience, our squad knows the difference between regular season games and playoff games.
Last year’s early round exit was heartbreaking but even with the exit, we learned what we did wrong and how we can make a strong comeback. The Denver Nuggets out ranked us in season record, but their offensive/defensive numbers in all don’t out rank us which means we have the mentality and weapons to secure a first-round victory.
Andrew: I wrote about how the Spurs could take down the Nuggets in the first round, and I still believe that is true after getting blown out in Denver. The combination of playoff experience, the matchup problems that Aldridge and DeRozan have caused during the season series between the two teams, and Pop’s superior experience to Mike Malone would give San Antonio a great shot at winning a tight series.
Matias: Portland is the obvious answer here, although it’s a shame the reason is Jusuf Nurkic going down with a serious injury so late in the season. The Blazers have gone 4-2 since the Nurkic injury, plugging in a combination of Jake Layman and Rodney Hood to go with Enes Kanter in the starting lineup. LaMarcus Aldridge should fare much better against Layman and Kanter than he would against Nurkic, who was ninth in defensive box plus/minus. In the 21 games that Kanter has appeared in for Portland, their offensive rating is +4.3 with Kanter off the floor and +0.9 with him on. Pair that with a CJ McCollum that’s recovering from a knee injury, and you have the perfect recipe for a first round upset.
Alex: The Portland Trail Blazers are the ideal matchup in my opinion for the Spurs come playoff time. Despite having one of the best backcourts in the NBA with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, they have only one two playoff series wins under their belt and have been swept twice most recently last year by Anthony Davis and the sixth seeded New Orleans Pelicans.
The Spurs and Blazers split the season series with neither team winning a game on the road. However, if you give Gregg Popovich five or six games in a row to figure out a team’s tendencies, he’ll definitely find a way to exploit a team’s weakness and use it to the Silver and Black’s advantage. The key matchup in that hypothetical series would be LaMarcus Aldridge versus Portland’s big men.
Without the services of Jusuf Nurkic, the Blazers are ill-equipped to match up with Aldridge on the low block and I think that will be able to put San Antonio over the top in a playoff series.
Dylan: As long as it’s not Golden State, it doesn’t matter. And I’m only partially kidding about that one, I seriously don’t want any part of that five-headed monster in the playoffs. Last year was difficult enough, although that one victory was incredibly redeeming in the moment.
Portland lost such a key piece of their team in Jusef Nurkic and CJ McCollum is coming off of an injury, so there’s a window of opportunity for the Spurs to win that series. Denver also feels prone to an upset in the first-round because of their lack of playoff experience and inconsistent defense.
Next: Which role player needs to step up?
3. Which role player will be the most important in the postseason?
Kendall: I’ve said this before, but I believe that Rudy Gay is the most important piece on this Spurs team. In his second year in San Antonio, finally looking recovered from that devastating Achilles injury he suffered during his final season in Sacramento, Gay has been a key cog on this Spurs roster. Whether it’s in the starting lineup or leading the second unit off the bench, Gay’s production has been vital to San Antonio success this season.
Posting one of the top three-point shooting percentages on the team, Rudy’s versatility on the offensive and defensive side of the ball will afford him more playing time in the playoffs. The lineup consisting of White, Forbes, DeRozan, Gay and Aldridge was one of the most frequently used groupings this season and I believe Pop will continue rolling with that squad into the playoffs.
Ethan: The most important role player for the Spurs in this year’s playoffs is Davis Bertans. The Western conference is full of star guards. Derrick White’s ability to contain them will be key for the Spurs but it’s the three-and-D aspect of Bertans’ game that could be the spark San Antonio needs to have a shot at the title.
A deadeye shooter with a lightning quick release, Bertans can single handily blow the doors off a game or eliminate an opponent’s lead with his shooting. San Antonio is going to have to steal games on the road in order to advance. A daunting task for a team that has performed poorly away from the AT&T Center. Bertans hot hand will be needed in order to make that happen.
Melanie: Rudy Gay. Rudy has been that third person occasionally looped into DeRozan & Aldridge’s successful nights putting up double digits, key blocks, fast breaks and has been ranked #3 in the league for 3-point percentage. Even though he’s coming off the bench nowadays, his length for defense and his skills will take the pressure off DeRozan & Aldridge. When Rudy is out with the 2nd unit he steps into that leadership skills and best of all he’s never really been in foul trouble which is helpful to the score board for us.
Alex: Rudy Gay, no question about it. The 13-year veteran is a valuable frontcourt piece for the Spurs, whose length allows him to switch onto guards and still hold his own. His offensive game has always been and still is his calling card, as the Connecticut product is averaging 18.3 points per 36 minutes. Gay’s offensive ability gives San Antonio someone who can create their own shot if the offense breaks down and is someone Popovich can rely on to score outside of DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge.
Andrew: This answer depends on the matchup, but Jakob Poeltl could be incredibly important if the Spurs end up facing the Nuggets. Denver plays two big men most of the time, which will keep Poeltl on the floor more often. Poeltl could see himself matched up with Jokic a lot in a potential series, and the Nuggets’ center is the most important cog in their offensive system.
Matias: I’m not sure Derrick White qualifies as a role player anymore, but I’m still going to pick him. The Spurs’ offensive rating jumps up to +5.2 with him on the court versus a -0.8 with him off. White has established himself as one of the better guard defenders in the league, ranking ninth in total blocks and 17th in defensive rating (both among guards).
Derrick went through a bit of a shooting slump recently, further proving how much better the team is when he shoots the ball well. In the 20 games he’s appeared in since the All-Star break, the Spurs are 9-1 when White shoots over 40%, compared to 4-6 when he shoots below the mark.
They’ll also need his defensive prowess, because regardless of who they play in the first round, he’ll have his hands full as their best perimeter defender. Depending on seeding, White will be guarding James Harden, Jamal Murray, Steph Curry, Donovan Mitchell or Damian Lillard.
Dylan: This has been an incredibly important year for the role of Patty Mills in San Antonio, and I think that he’s going to be an important part of their success this playoff. He recently became the second Spur to score 4000 points off the bench with Manu Ginobili being the first.
As a leader, scorer and facilitator of Popovich’s offense, I think that Patty is going to be crucial in the longrun.
Next: How will DeRozan and Aldridge perform in the playoffs?
4. How do you think DeRozan and Aldridge will perform in the playoffs?
Kendall: I believe their performance could be dictated by who the Spurs’ first round opponent is. The Warriors have several two-way players that can nullify DeRozan and Aldridge’s effectiveness, forcing players such as White and Forbes to taken on a greater burden. But, for the most part, I’m optimistic about how this new duo will perform in the postseason. LMA was excellent in last year’s first round matchup with the Warriors, averaging 23.6 points and 9.2 rebounds through those five games, and I fully expect Aldridge to bring that same level of consistency he’s had all season.
DeRozan, given his previous playoff woes, gave me some cause to pause. Over the last few years DD has had a precipitous offensive drop-off once the page turns from the regular season to the playoffs: in 2015-16, DeRozan’s field goal percentage plummeted from 44.6 percent to 39.4 percent, in 2016-17 it fell from 46.7 percent to 43.4 percent, and last year in 2017-18 his average declined from 45.6 percent to 43.7 percent, which marks DeRozan’s highest shooting percentage over five postseason appearances.
Right now, DeMar is shooting 48 percent from the floor, his highest mark since his rookie season in 2009-10 (49.8 percent). Is he in store for another disappointing postseason stint? I’d say no. With the change of scenery, moving from Toronto to San Antonio, and the specter of LeBron James no longer looming over him as a mental roadblock, I believe DeRozan will finally live up to those lofty expectations.
Ethan: In the playoffs, the game slows down. Every possession is a battle, every missed shot stings a little bit more. It’s in moments like this that your star players have to be able to take over and get their shots. DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are perfectly suited for that. Both have been criticized for having mid-range heavy games but that can actually work to their advantage in the post-season.
There are very few big men who have the combination of strength and footwork necessary to lock down Aldridge. DeRozan is a Kobe disciple and has a similarly reliable iso game. These two players are more than capable of monopolizing possessions and getting their own shot time after time. It might not look the prettiest, letting one player use up most of the shot clock only to take a contested long-range two. But if it works, that’s all that matters.
If San Antonio does go up against Denver in the first round, look for Aldridge to take over games early and often. He’s played well against Denver so far this season, averaging around 22 points per contest. That number should go up in the playoffs when his usage should increase.
Melanie: DeRozan spending his career in the eastern conference, never being able to make it to the finals, I think this is somewhat of a redemption post season, especially with Casey benching him in last year’s playoffs. While Ibaka and Lowry are decent players, they aren’t Aldridge & Forbes. Forbes and Aldridge have a better average and efficiency than Ibaka & Lowry.
This means DeRozan has more options to make plays, score in the paint or even from the ark, or draw defenders in to lob it for Aldridge’s signature shot or let Forbes to go for the 3pt-spree. Aldridge’s All-Star appearance was another perk on his resume, but I believe he’s hungry for more, he’s playing for the legacy in the end, so I sense his desire to have 25+ points in multiple games. DeRozan & Aldridge’s playoff performance will be astounding to watch but an NBA rendition of the Avengers nonetheless.
Andrew: DeRozan’s playoff struggles have been well-documented, and I think he could still have some trouble scoring in the playoffs. While DeMar’s improved playmaking skills will still make him a valuable offensive player, I think Aldridge will have a better postseason.
Matias: Hopefully well, but it really depends on matchups for both of them. The offense runs through Aldridge, which is why a matchup against Portland’s front court is much more appealing than matching up with a more athletic Clint Capela or someone like Rudy Gobert.
DeMar DeRozan, who has a reputation of disappointing in the playoffs, could really use a strong postseason as well. This season is DeRozan’s worst scoring season since 2014-15, which was the last time he wasn’t an all-star. For the Spurs to even contend in the first round and potentially beyond that, Aldridge and DeRozan will have to put up good numbers.
Alex: Aldridge should do just fine. The only time Aldridge has had issues in the playoffs is when he didn’t get consistent touches in the offense (see 2016-2017 playoffs). But with LA having the second highest usage rate of anyone on the roster at 26.9 I don’t think that will be much of an issue.
DeRozan, on the other hand, I’m not so sure about. Despite putting up quality scoring averages in the playoffs over the years, in the postseason the USC product hasn’t shot better than 44 percent from the field on shots taken in the last five minutes of the game or less, with DeRozan posting a 25 percent shooting percentage in the clutch last year. DeRozan is one of a few Spurs with extended playoff experience, they’ll need him to show up if San Antonio will make any kind of noise.
Dylan: I’m much more confident in Aldridge than I am in DeRozan, but these are two individuals that’ve continuously proven that they can compete in the playoffs. Yes, there have been moments where DeRozan has fallen apart but he’s also done a great job of maintaining his composure over the course of a seven game series.
Now as a member of the San Antonio Spurs, I think there’s a good chance that DeRozan has a nice playoff showing because he’ll be playing in a system that suits him as a player.
We’ve seen some great playoff outings from LaMarcus Aldridge in his time with San Antonio, but he’s had his fair share of duds as well. With that said, there’s an argument to be made that this is Aldridge’s best season as a Spur.